“There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels”
— Exxon scientist James Black to top management in 1977
We’ve known about the effect of fossil fuel burning on climate for a long time. Dr. James Black described the state of the science to Exxon management over 40 years ago. Exxon first responded with a decade-long research program measuring carbon dioxide and performing other climate research, which confirmed the severity of the climate crisis. In the 1980s Exxon abruptly cut its climate research and shifted to intense climate denial, including strong funding for disinformation factories.
What’s happened to the climate since Exxon’s understanding of the climate crisis in 1977? Earth’s temperature has risen sharply. You can see from the image below that at least two-thirds of global heating has happened since 1977. The heating has accelerated substantially since the mid-1970s as well. Anyone born in the 1980s or later has never experienced a “colder than average” year on Earth, defined by departures from the 1951-1980 average.
You can explore this data and other plots of temperature change from NASA here.
You can listen to a sonic representation of NASA global temperature data, made with Judy Twedt, in the video below. Higher pitch notes represent higher temperature. The drums are there to make it funky.
Could Earth’s fever be natural? The answer to this question is very clear: the heating of the Earth is caused by industrial pollution. In fact, the best estimate of the industrial-caused component is 100% (with approximate range 70-130%). Natural ups and downs of climate over the record are equally likely to have caused cooling than warming, in isolation from the pollution-induced effects.
Global heating is mostly due to the fossil fuel industry: carbon dioxide (CO2) and many other pollutants are released into the atmosphere in the extraction, refining and burning of coal, oil and fossil methane gas. Industrial agriculture and the chemical industry are also responsible to different degrees. Fossil fuel emissions have skyrocketed in recent decades: doubled since 1975, and up by a factor of 5 since 1950.
Carbon dioxide has a very long lifetime within the atmosphere. A sizable fraction of the extra CO2 put into the air by the fossil fuel industry will still be present tens of thousands of years from now. Dozens, even hundreds of future generations will be affected by the pollution of the current Industrial Era.
In order to stop the heating, fossil fuel burning has to stop. Instead of rapidly increasing emissions, as shown in the above plot, the curve needs to reverse direction and plummet to zero. Not just in electricity generation and transportation, but in buildings, industry and agriculture as well. Not just in some countries but in all countries around the world. Another country’s slow progress is no excuse for inaction because we all have to end up at the same place: no fossil fuels. Each additional ton of CO2 emitted along the inevitable path to zero does damage, by heating the planet for thousands of years.
Currently fossil fuels provide most of the power for transportation, electricity and industry, across the planet. About 2/3rds of electricity generation, 99% of the cars, and many industrial practices must be shuttered or replaced. Deforestation, the permanent cutting down of forests usually to clear land for agriculture, must also drop to near zero. The scale of change required to get to zero emissions is tremendous; every facet of so-called modern life must be changed.
Future Climate interactive tool by EarthGames
The target argued by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in the international climate negotiations is 1.5o C above preindustrial. The international community, on the other hand, has agreed only to 2o C above preindustrial. These targets will only be met with rapid shuttering of many extractive industries. Try experimenting yourself with the Future Climate interactive tool above. You’ll find that we have to stop burning fossil fuels with astonishing rapidity.
The word “radical” comes from the Latin for root. Radical thinkers look for the root causes rather than superficial fixes or bandages. They recognize that the fossil fuel industry, industrial agriculture, and the chemical industry follow from the drive to put profit before human well-being. It’s the same motivation that allowed such atrocities as slavery, the theft of Indigenous land, and imperialism to occur.
So much needs to be rebuilt. Why wouldn’t we design a better, more equal world for all? Why would we allow the same powerful forces that got us into this mess to stay in charge? Insisting that climate “solutions” must be embedded in a system that values property over human life would be disastrous for so many. Many false-solution strategies being touted by potential profiteers require tremendous amounts of energy and resources, overuse of land, and exposure of workers and communities to new health risks. They would result in increasing inequality, with a problem that itself is caused by the wealthy and in which burdens fall mostly on the poor. We don’t need to go down this path. Radical thinkers can imagine, and help realize, a different world. We need those who can see to the root to develop just climate action strategies.